Questions have arisen regarding the efficacy of the National Indigenous Australians Agency after the organisation skirted questions regarding deaths in custody and funding allocation during Senate Estimates.

The organisation, currently headed by non-Indigenous man Ray Griggs, took questions from Victorian Greens Senator Lidia Thorpe last Friday regarding the funding of non-Indigenous companies under the Indigenous Advancement Strategy.

Currently, the Commonwealth funds the Employment Parity Initiative under the Strategy.

NIAA Economic Policy and Programs Group Manager, Ryan Bulman, said this initiative is funded to bring together some of the country’s largest employers and supports them in employing Indigenous people.

“Why can’t they afford to do it themselves? Do they need Blak money to do Blak stuff? Why aren’t these companies who are getting billions of dollars and not paying corporate tax just doing it from the goodness of their hearts?” asked Senator Thorpe.

Senator Thorpe has since submitted questions to the NIAA regarding funding provided to non-Indigenous companies including Woolworths Group, Wesfarmers, Clontarf, Sodexo and Group Training Australia.

“This Federal Government is using the NIAA as a slush fund to give millions of dollars to their big donor mates — mining companies and big corporations that pay no tax in this country,” Senator Thorpe told NIT.

“This is money that they say is being spent on Blak communities.

“Why should we give millions to big companies that are making enormous profits to employ Blakfullas when they don’t even pay tax?”

While Senator Thorpe says the NIAA has “a lot of questions to answer” and that the Agency’s “leadership is an issue”, the bigger problem is the current Liberal Government.

“They don’t care about First Nations people of this country. They don’t care about equality, or fairness – they only care about their big donor mates.”

Walbunja man and CEO of the Byamee Institute Simon Jovanovic says even with Aboriginal leadership, the NIAA would still struggle to effectively support the interests of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

“I don’t think we will ever achieve self-determination, even with an Aboriginal person leading [the NIAA] because it’s still part of that system that has been set up by governments before them,” he said.

“What’s really changed for us at a grassroots level, even with an Indigenous Affairs Minister who is Aboriginal like Ken Wyatt?”

“Racialised problematic policies like closing the gap are continually redesigned by government public servants.

“Key consultation only takes place with a handpicked group of elite Aboriginal leaders without any real changes made at the grassroots level to the Government’s welfare and intervention system.”

As the NIAA gives money to multimillion-dollar companies in the name of employment, Jovanovic says smaller Aboriginal organisations are being shoved aside.

“Little Aboriginal corporations, they’re set up to be drip-fed. Whenever the Government wants to drown them, they will drown them. Whenever the Government wants to use them as their tokenistic organisation for a photoshoot, they will use them,” he said.

The NIAA also faced questions from Labor Senators Pat Dodson and Malarndirri McCarthy regarding Indigenous deaths in custody last Friday.

Senator Dodson asked the NIAA to clarify who was responsible within the Commonwealth for collecting information regarding deaths in custody, adding that the Attorney-General’s Department had outlined it was the NIAA’s responsibility.

NIAA officials told the hearing that the Australian Institute of Criminology, which falls under the Department of Home Affairs, is responsible for data collection and tracking deaths in custody.

“The National Indigenous Australians Agency looks at the range of issues that, from our perspective, lead to incarceration. That’s our brief. As you know, the high numbers of incarceration [lead]to or are a driver of deaths in custody,” said NIAA Deputy CEO, Policy and Programs Blair Exell.

“Through the Close the Gap exercise, as we discussed in the last Estimates, that is something that the National Indigenous Australians Agency is responsible for coordinating, to look at those issues to see what can be done about reducing the level of incarceration. That’s our responsibility.”

The new National Agreement on Closing the Gap outlines a new target to reduce the rate of incarcerated Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults by 15 per cent.

Currently, the agreement notes Indigenous deaths in custody as “contextual information” in relation to the target.

“It’s like an Aboriginal life lost doesn’t really mean anything to them at all. It’s the same thing again, they’ll pass the buck and say it isn’t part of their requirements, but it is,” says Jovanovic.

He says the NIAA does have an obligation to track deaths in custody due to their responsibility to close the gap in incarceration.

A spokesperson for the NIAA told NIT the Agency is “in regular contact” with the AIC to receive the data it collects under the National Deaths in Custody Program.

“NIAA does not need to be the entity collecting deaths in custody data to make use of it,” the spokesperson said.

The spokesperson also reiterated that the responsibility of criminal justice systems falls upon the States and Territories.

“NIAA’s focus is on addressing underlying factors that lead to incarceration to improve justice and community safety outcomes for Indigenous Australians.”

By Rachael Knowles